Chef Mellisa Root Talks Drinking in Portland and Cocktails as Dessert Inspiration

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To find out what’s happening in Portland, Ore., directly from a local food and drink tastemaker, we checked in with executive pastry chef Mellisa Root, who along with her husband, David, owns and operates the new seafood-focused spot The Hairy Lobster, which works closely with farmers, fishermen and other local purveyors to source high-quality ingredients. Before opening the restaurant, Root worked alongside chef Thomas Keller at New York’s Per Se as chef de partie and as the pastry chef at Menlo Park, Calif.’s Michelin-starred Madera. She has also won three gold medals at the World Culinary Olympics and competed in the Gelato World Cup. Mellisa talked to us about what she likes to drink and some of her favorite places in Portland.

What do you like to drink when you get off work?

It varies. I don’t always go to the exact same thing. Right now, I’m exploring bourbons and whiskeys. I recently got a bottle of Willett bourbon, and the other day I tried the Nikka Coffey grain whisky from Japan. To me, I don’t know the whole history of what they’re doing differently, but the finish on that is so clean. It just fades off into a different type of finish that I haven’t tasted on any other whiskey. It wasn’t necessarily my favorite, because sometimes I like to have that lingering taste in my mouth. For special occasions, I do have a bottle of the 12-year-old Rip Van Winkle, and I have a bottle of the Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve 15 Year.

Mellisa Root and the Cool as a Cucumber cocktail

Do you usually drink at work or head out when you’re off?

Because I own the place, I drink here. That’s where my bar manager comes into play. Sometimes I’ll ask him to make me the next thing he’s thinking about adding to the cocktail list, or I’ll try some wine he wants to add. Yesterday I tasted a Tiki drink we’re working on. He has a drink called the Cutty Clipper on the menu for which he takes yellow bell pepper and juices it. It’s so well balanced with a lime cordial, vodka, rum and mole bitters and topped with dots of red hot chile oil. I like cocktails that are balanced, otherwise they’re not enjoyable.

What are some local spots you like to hit for drinks when you’re off work?

Most recently, I went to Hamlet and hit the bar. I talked to the bartender and asked her to recommend something great. I’m usually game for anything except for mezcal. She made me a carrot and horseradish cocktail [the Thumper’s Revenge] for which they’re taking their own vodka, infusing it with horseradish and shaking it with carrot juice. It was really refreshing and balanced. Bartenders know the best drinks. My sister took me to Pépé Le Moko, and it’s doing all classic cocktails. It was the best Whiskey Sour I’ve ever had. They were mixing and shaking like nobody’s business. On weekend days, we try to find different places and check out different things. David and I haven’t been in Portland for too long, and we like to explore.

Cutty Clipper

Have you found any cocktails that inspire your cooking?

Yes, yes. I have taken inspiration from a Pimm’s Cup and a Dark & Stormy and played with the flavors from that; I have taken flavors from a Long Island Iced Tea and made an ice cream float dessert. They way I like to cook, I love to use booze. In my old shop in California, I had a liquor room where I had three shelves of different liquor and had some form of liquor in every dessert. It adds nuance and seasoning that doesn’t exist in other forms of cooking. I love looking at classic cocktail inspirations and doing a twist.

Any spring ingredients that inspire you cocktailing?

I put a strawberry dessert on the menu and am making a strawberry consommé, and in turn my bartender tasted it and suggested taking it and making a spring Pimm’s Cup. That then evolved into us playing with cucumber and developed the Cool as a Cucumber. We’re doing this beautiful gin, Galliano, elderflower and house-made honey shrub. We made the ice cube really long and clear on one side (a 4.5-inch rectangle cube), the other side is fresh cucumber juice, and a long sliver of English cucumber separates the two sides. It’s divided and refreshing. It’s perfect for outside, and as the ice melts the drink evolves.

What do you drink when traveling?

It depends on where I am. Normally if I’m in a dive bar, I’ll drink a local draft, and if I’m in a bar that has a passionate bartender, I let them guide me. I like to try different things and haven’t had too many drinks I haven’t found enjoyable or that I could appreciate. It’s fun to sit and say, “Tell me what you think is the best,” because that’s that way I approach drinking; I’m not pigeonholed into drinks just made with one spirit. I most recently had a Sazerac, which I had never had, and I thought it was a beautiful drink.

What do you like to serve at a dinner party to kick things off?

I really like to make a blueberry vodka Martini for which I use blueberries and infuse the vodka for about a month. I keep a jar in my wine cooler. I strain the blueberries and use fresh lime juice and my own simple syrup, and it’s refreshing. But more recently, I’ve been doing punch bowls. I’ve played around with the idea of having big punch bowls here on our patio this summer. Those are really fun at a dinner party, so I’m not making cocktails all night. The last one I did was gin and cranberries steeped with fresh vanilla pods, and I let the alcohol saturate and then strained it out. It had big ice cubes with kaffir lime and cranberries.

Any guilty pleasures you like to drink when no one is looking?

Hmm, maybe a Midori Sour. That would take me way back to my youth. I would be mortified if anyone saw me drinking it, and I wonder if I would enjoy it anymore now.

Locations: Oregon Portland
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